Monthly Archives: March 2014

An a-z of ambivalence

At the end of last week we had to either re-enrol or withdraw our youngest, R, for the next 2014-15 school year. (F is 18 and so leaving anyway.) In the cut-throat world of international schools, where demand is high and waiting lists are long, it’s brutal – there’s no leeway, absolutely no extensions. Not doing either, as you can probably imagine if you’ve ever dealt with such a place, has heavy financial implications. Anyway, the long and short of it was we had a deadline for a decision that’s been hovering around for several months now. And the decision we made? We’re going home, back to the UK.

Given the life I currently lead, I’m hardly alone in having to contemplate or come to terms with such a move, but as this is a blog about these things, and it’s neither a secret nor (commonplace as it might be here) actually that normal for me, it feels appropriate to mark it. So, hoooooo, big exhalation. How do I feel?

In no particular order:
a. Happy that we, Mr N and I, can be more effectively there for H – and, as of September/ October, F too – at university: lunch and dinner treats, odd weekends home, nothing if they don’t need it, but knowing it can be done is warming and beats just sending money and Skyping.
b. Heavy-hearted about having to say (what in many cases will be a final) goodbye to Houston friends, whose easy affinity has belied the need in all of us when rootless to find people, quick, with whom we click – and find them we do.
c. Thrilled at the prospect of physically reconnecting with my Derbyshire pals whose lives have been intertwined with the growing up of our children from babies; no more missed family camping trips, big birthdays, girls’ weekends away, weddings (yes, even at our, let’s say seasoned, ages there have been TWO in my absence so, who knows?), oh and miss them I have.
d. Guilty at inflicting a move on R, who at 15 is at a tricksy age, educationally and emotionally; seeing your children miserable or hurt is worse than feeling miserable or hurt yourself, empathy doesn’t get near to describing the raw emotion. And, as if that wasn’t quite hard enough, this is of our doing, not his at all, so some might consider him justified if he  questioned our parenting. Already he’s made some barbed [albeit very funny – there is hope] remarks: watching a tv programme about planes t’other night, I said how nice it would be if one of my three children became a pilot, free flights and all that, at which he batted back, “the way my schooling’s going, all you’ll be getting free from me is a Starbucks”. Ouch. And then, later, mulling over whether to get a dog (see last post, dog shit and death, for outcome of said mulling) he was all for it, “cos it’ll be the only friend I’ll have next year”. Double ouch. I don’t doubt it’s going to get sharper before it gets softer.
e.  Comforted that we’ll be back round the corner from Grandma and Grandad (who, though they’d never ever say it, have suffered the void of their grandchildren) and really just down the road (in Texan terms) from the rest of the family of cousins and aunties and uncles and old friends far and wide but still no more than a few hours away.
f.  Sorry to leave Houston itself in all its sprawling, concrete, road-y, flat, ugliness. I’ve loved it here and feel quite, well, fond of the place, loyal even.  It’s full of surprises – the rodeo’s a wow, fabulous live music, dance and drama in intimate places, a free outdoor theatre, choice of restaurants to die for, green spaces sprawling under big roads, the 50 mile long Buffalo Bayou from beyond Katy to downtown,  the Alamo Drafthouse serving locally micro-brewed beers and cocktails and home-made food at your seats while you watch a movie that probably isn’t a blockbuster, might be a cult classic, and that maybe you can sing- or quote-along to as well, and more, more, more.  And I’m guessing I won’t come back.
g. Excited at soon being able to walk to the shops, buy lamb from the local butcher, meat pies from the bakery, cycle out of our front door, catch buses and trains again, read and share the Saturday Guardian, run in the hills, listen to Radio 4 in real time.
h. Rueful to be giving up a swimming pool in my back garden, free tennis courts and the weather that means we can use them virtually all year round.
i. Thankful to be handing back a rented house, no longer needing to excuse the decor, and heading to our very own bricks and mortar (the place where R was born!) and the stuff that fills and decorates it.
j. Disappointed that we will no longer have North America on our doorstep. We haven’t been to DC, Chicago, Boston, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver. I haven’t yet managed to visit my childhood neighbours in Pennsylvania (sorry E but maybe it’s not quite too late, I WILL ring you and your Mum soon!) or get back to Ottawa where my Dad’s sister lives – my and my brother’s last link to anyone who remembers him now my Mum can’t.
k. Determined to make the most of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the rest of Europe on our new doorstep (and yes, V, that definitely means Belgium too!).
l. Pathetically, sorry for myself and a little short-changed: this was always a precarious posting for us that could’ve been over in a year, but all the same, two years doesn’t quite feel long enough and in a beat will be gone. Three years would’ve been perfect.
m. Lucky lucky lucky for what we have had and all we’ve been able to see, do and experience.
n. Wearied by the thought of the packing up and associated palaver.
o. Looking forward to the leaving party.
p. Dreading the departure.
q. Dancing at the anticipation of the arrival.
r. Reluctant to relinquish my life of ease, privilege, and easy-to-dispense charity.
s. Ready to reestablish my role as a working woman – it’s time to get back to earning my crust!
t. Nervous that I’ve burnt my bridges career-wise and that, at nearly 50 and almost idle for two years, I’ll be good for nowt.
u. Hopeful that Mr N will find fulfilment in a job he enjoys and can continue to keep me in the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed should the above scenario play out.
v. Uncertain about the direction I want to take when I’m back and my ability to seize the moment: is this a door opening or closing?
w. Newly motivated to finish the novel I’m writing before we go. (Ok, it’s out there now, that should make me do it…).
x. Worried that we’ve made the wrong decision (but how will we ever know?).
y. Relieved that it was, nevertheless, our decision in the end and that at last we’ve made it, after months of indecision and what felt like lack of control.
z. Absolutely certain that, if we went back in time knowing all of this, we would do it all again. Hell, yeah!



Dog shit and death

We’re dog-sitting at the moment for our neighbours, the Ks. Heidi, she’s called, and largely no trouble. We’ve had her a few times and the boys love it, which makes me think about getting a dog. But only momentarily because then one of us has to scoop the poop, a phrase which is so much pleasanter than the activity actually is. It’s the texture and the warmth of the stuff through the thin plastic bag in your hand that makes me gag every time. I’m assured you get used to it, but I’m not so sure I want to.  We’ve debated the issue, Mr N and me, more than once over the years, listing the pros and cons, and it’s always come down to the same faecal, er, sticking point (sorry, bad pun).  The fact is, I suppose, that we just don’t want one enough to be able to move on from the brown stuff.  [Incidentally, both of us had dogs growing up but I don’t remember ever dealing with the crap and since Mr N point blank refuses to shovel up his share I can’t image he ever did before either. Perhaps we didn’t, just left it wherever? Was that the norm back then? I think it probably was; that, or we were badly behaved families whose doggy detritus caused many a tut and a grumble and no doubt a fair few shit smeared shoes. I do apologise.]

So temporary ownership is a brilliant compromise. A bit like what they say about being a grandparent – you get the adoration and the action, can spoil her rotten, make your teens do the dirty stuff – which, for a few days and with bribery, they can be persuaded to do – and then you get to give her back!  Before we moved to Houston, we used to look after the M family’s dog, Daisy, a white-haired Lab. Then, she was an excitable youngster, yet massive, so it was quite like having a bouncy baby polar bear in the house. Being friendly and basically adolescent, and also a water magnet, it wasn’t unusual for her to lie down in stagnant pools and then bound up and on to other walkers. It was useful to be able to say, and I did say it a lot, “She’s not my dog”.  Another benefit of transient care.  But I bring Daisy into this because I don’t, in fact, have the best history for the job, particularly the giving back bit (but I’ve not told the Ks this as Mrs K is a bit of a worrier).  We had Daisy over Christmas one year while the Ms were away. By Christmas Day, there’d already been a lot of cold, muddy, rainy walks involving long spells watching Daisy happily swimming in the river and not wanting to get out, ever. We also had my mad mother virtually in residence, who kept forgetting we had the dog and then, time and again, like Groundhog Day, being mentally and almost physically bowled over by her enthusiastic hellos as she came upon her in surprise. And she (the dog) had naughtily made it upstairs a few times, once to consume the whole of F’s chocolate orange from his stocking. So, though it was fun and she was adorable, it wasn’t relaxed, and I said as much to Mrs M in a text on Xmas Day. I forget my exact turn of phrase, this was over two years ago now, but I think I possibly expressed some slight stress through humour.  I mention this because it has a bearing on my later guilt.  The next day, Boxing Day, we took her for a long walk then dropped her back at the M’s house late morning. We were going out for lunch, with mad mother, and didn’t think Daisy in tow in pub would work. Anyway, the Ms were due back later that day, so with water bowl filled and snacks out, we knew Daisy would be fine for a few hours. I dropped the key back through the letterbox, sent a text saying that she was home and off we went to the pub.  The next day, we drove up to Edinburgh, setting out quite early. A couple of hours up the motorway, and I get a panicky call from Mrs M. Turns out they weren’t due back until later THAT day, she’s only just  seen my message, and so Daisy had been home alone (and still is!), shut in the kitchen with no access to the garden, for almost for 24 hours. How full of shame did I feel? Not only had I taken her back a day too early, but I’d sent an ambiguous text, in the light of which it could’ve looked like I’d had enough, done it deliberately!  [It all ended happily, you’ll be pleased to know: Daisy didn’t appear to be overly distressed on rescue, amazingly hadn’t messed in the kitchen, and, most importantly, we’re still good friends with the Ms – they came out to stay with us in Houston last Easter to prove it. Phew.]

I guess that the worst thing about pet-sitting is the danger of death (my immediate image of Daisy was a dead one, ludicrously, really, as dogs can go days and days without food, but the awfulness of the prospect was just too, well, awful). And, in fact, whenever we have Heidi here she does take a while to adjust, so doesn’t eat much and looks decidedly IMG_1847dejected for the first few days (look at her, here on the right!) which can be a bit of a worry. She’s getting on a bit too, and, as was starkly pointed out by M at the bus-stop this morning, she’s overweight. So sudden death could still happen on our watch.

Fortunately, touch wood, that’s not something we’ve ever had to deal with, yet.  But I have been on the other side of the fence, as my lovely friend R knows only too well. I suspect that she still feels contrite these full nine years later, as well as, morally, still in my debt to the tune of £175, for the demise of James (or was it Tom?) the guinea pig while in her care.  It’s a very long story, but the salient facts are as follows:

  • James and Tom the guinea pigs cost us £5 each; they were about one year old so still, really, should’ve had a good two or three years of life ahead of them; they were not particularly tame;
  • R agreed to look after them while we were away for four or five days, in a run in her garden, but when I dropped them off, we discovered a horribly bloody mess oozing out of the belly of James; R had the unfortunate job of taking him to the vet on my behalf, as we literally had to fly; I told her that it would be fine if he was put down and that, obviously, I’d pay for whatever was required; he was not put down (R didn’t feel she could ask outright, James not being hers), but instead prescribed (costly) antibiotics, and R was charged with administering them orally and cleaning the abscess area daily. Nice.
  • On return from our hols, we took the critters back home and continued the treatment, but the abscess didn’t clear up. This time I visit the vet and, stupidly, take the then nine year old F with me. Our presented options are: another course of antibiotics, but at the risk of the wound attracting flies and their eggs (ew!), or an operation to remove the thing and see what’s what inside. A freaking operation! On a £5 guinea pig! The vet didn’t offer the euthanasia option, and because I had F by my side welling up, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it directly. So, absurdly, down the op route we went. There was a chance that, once opened up there would be too much wrong and he would be allowed to die, so we left him there, me with my fingers crossed that the DNR solution would come into play.
  • But he was made of strong stuff, was James. He pulled through, and back home he came. He needed another (costly) course of antibiotics, as well as to be housed separately from Tom while the wound healed so I had to buy a hamster cage for his convalescence.
  • Roll forward about two or three weeks after he has rejoined Tom in the hutch in perfect health, and we’re away again, so back they both go to R, in the run in her garden.
  • [Keep in mind, this is £175 on vet’s appointment fees x 2, course of antibiotics x 2, operation (successful outcome, therefore longer and pricier than death on table) and hamster cage down the line.]
  • One evening, dusky, R lifts up the run to pick James up, and, feral creature that he is, he escapes, whoosh, gone. Down the garden. Out of sight. Just out.   And two days later, stiff body found and (helpfully, I thought!) returned to R by neighbour three doors down. There’s no denying he’s dead. £175 down the drain. Like that *snap of fingers*.

I have not let this come between R and me, I think you can probably tell.  Here’s hoping the Ks (or anyone else I might find myself pet-sitting for) would show the same grace in the event of animal death in my custody. It’s a risk I’m prepared to take in return for a fleeting family pet. In the meantime, I’m off to take Heidi round the block and, of course, I’ll be counting on her to save her business for the boys…



You play you pay

Oh my days what a lovely time I’ve been having, even without Mr N who is still right round the other side of the world from here with wifi issues. Some may have noticed I’ve been a bit blog-lite lately. No? Oh well, I flatter myself. That would no doubt be a consequence of the not-in-the-normal-run-of-things two and a half weeks that I’ve just spent. It’s not that my life took a semi-permanent holiday turn (it did, though), it’s the sense of immunity from the cares, troubles and responsibilities of daily shit that this time out prompts and which sends you free-wheeling into indulged and indulgent mode that, perspectively, is a bit skew-whiff.  I don’t mean to appear to be smugly privileged and flaunting it; rather what I’m trying to express is how quickly unreality can lose the ‘un’ bit, even when you know it’s temporary. And then, bang, you come back down with, if not exactly a crash (please, no-one feel sorry for me), then a slight rattle.

So, first then, to what’s been occurring. Half-term hols at the British School of Houston and no break for most American schools = cheeky chance for off-peak airfares. One more opp to see another bit of the States. Another week, another road trip. Stupid not to. So with Mr N off limits but oldest friend Mildred (it’s ok, it’s already a pseudonym) in tow, we – me, Mildred, and my two boys, in our faux-lesbian-family of four – flew to Albuquerque and drove up to Denver and flew home again, with stops in Madrid (emphasis on the Mad, apparently, but we couldn’t help ourselves from pronouncing it the normal capital of Spain way), Santa Fe, Taos, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Estes Park and the Rocky Mountain National Park in between. Adding to the adventure was our decision not to book anything beyond the flights, car hire, first night’s hotel in Albuquerque and our Breaking Bad homage tour for which I had to offer a premium to secure as the tour season doesn’t actually start until April (pricey but priceless!).   As well as Walt and Skylar’s house and the car wash and Los Pollos Hermanos (aka Twisters which, *fun fact*, doesn’t sell chicken) and loads of other BB haunts which I won’t bore you with further (but, yo! it was fan-fantastic) we saw mountains at every turn, adobe against azure, startling turquoise on bright white on mud brown, ancient buildings, sleepy backstreets like bucolic old world Spain, low rise understatement, chic highbrow moneyed paintings, folk art, indigenous handicraft (and kitsch crap), rust coloured ridges of rock blurting up. We got breathless at high altitude, wet and weary in thigh deep snow, dazed in the ethereal light, bruised and undignified falling off mountain bikes, awestruck by the quick-changing landscapes and townscapes and cityscapes. Electrified by the differences. Same country, different worlds; Houston, Texas far, far away.

Next, back in H-town, some culture. Real stuff, raw and live. Still hosting Mildred, we took in the rarefied grace and Russian magic of the Houston Symphony playing Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff (from the cheap seats on the front row we could only glimpse the flying hair of the boy pianist but he held us rapt) and then the rodeo, tough and Texan, where they strap very small children onto sheep for mutton-bustin’ light entertainment, and the roping and bareback riding and bronc riding and bull riding’s hardcore and the cowboys are for real and called Cody and Brady and Casey and Clint.

Then like the top layer of the perfect holiday sandwich, we hit New York, Mildred and me, sans les garçons.  She had work to do, I got to tag along rent-free for four nights. Criminal not to.  This isn’t meant to be a travel blog, and anyway, what can I say about New York that hasn’t been said before in a million ways? We had the luxury of no agenda, didn’t feel the need to go up tall buildings. We strolled and cycled and ran, rode the subway and the bus and caught a couple of cabs. Bought souvenirs. Took snaps in the sunshine. Ate dirt cheap knishes and pricey fusion food. Went to a museum. Drank cosmopolitans and Brooklyn bourbon and beer. Took in a comedy show. You get the picture.

But all good things must come to an end, and so they have.  We parted on Tuesday night in New York, Mildred to Edinburgh and me to Houston and my home-alone boys. Yesterday was Wednesday which I spent i) paying bills, ii) food shopping, iii) cooking 1 x lamb shepherd’s pie and 1 x veggie shepherd’s pie, iv) driving to school, waiting in lines, discussing R’s many good and occasional bad points with his teachers at parents evening,  driving very slowly back home in the rush hour, v) doing the washing. But, what I mainly did – before, in-between and after all these other things –  was clean and tidy a house very recently occupied by two unparented teenage boys for four days.  You play you pay indeedy.

Normal blogging service will now resume.